Normally, I find discussions of the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame”, a topic which comes up with depressing regularity in any forum frequented by American fans of so-called classic rock, immensely irrelevant to my interests.
For those who don’t know (which is to say, most British people, and most people under forty), the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” is a museum in Cleveland which, much like a giant Hard Rock Cafe, contains memorabilia relating to various musicians. The decision on which musicians get included in this museum is largely in the hands of a Mr. Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine and noted Hootie & The Blowfish fan.
Mr. Wenner still has the opinions about what counts as “real music” that he held in 1967, when he decided that the best bands in the world were the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and that long jam sessions were much better than all those Hollywood sell-outs with their melodies and their sense of fun.
And this is fine — this “Hall of Fame” is his thing — except that for some reason quite a lot of people (again, pretty much all Americans — I mention this repeatedly not as a piece of anti-Americanism, but to explain to British readers why something that most of us have no awareness of at all is worthy of any comment) seem to think, or at least act as if they think, it has some kind of official status, that it’s an imprimatur that actually determines whether or not a band is officially “good”.
This has led to a lot of campaigns to get various bands and artists — the Monkees, Squeeze, Thin Lizzy, T-Rex, Captain Beefheart, The Jam, the New York Dolls, Jan & Dean — onto what is essentially just “My List of The Koolest Bands EVAR!!! By Jann Wenner Aged 70 And Three Months”. This seems pointless to me, like someone just saying over and over again “admit it, you like the Monkees really” will eventually get him to confess that I’m A Believer actually is better than the twenty-three minute live version of Dark Star from Live/Dead by the Grateful Dead.
So people have opinions about this Hall of Fame, and one of those people is Gene Simmons. And his opinion has even been making it into serious newspapers, and being treated as news, so his statements are worth looking at.
Gene Simmons, for those who don’t know, is the large-tongued merchandising executive with Kiss Catalog Ltd, a trademark holding company whose executives sometimes perform musical concerts with their employees as a novel way of selling branded goods.
Mr Simmons has recently strongly and publicly objected to the band NWA being added to Mr Wenner’s list of his favourite groups, saying “[I] respect N.W.A, but when Led Zep gets into Rap Hall of Fame, I will agree with your point.”
Now, I am sure Mr. Simmons does respect N.W.A., and that he is fully familiar with their catalogue. Certainly I see no reason to suspect that a politically conservative, extremely anti-immigration, sixty-six year-old white American who refers to hip-hop as “rap” might not be familiar with NWA’s work, nor any reason to suspect any racial motives in his repeated claim that “I am looking forward to the death of rap”.
No, let us take Mr. Simmons entirely at his word. He is a fan of NWA, clearly, given his repeated statements of respect for them. He is just concerned about definitions, as are all the middle-aged white people agreeing with him on Facebook saying things like “rap is not music, that’s just fact, not opinion”. They’re concerned about the term “rock and roll” being stretched to encompass music it wasn’t originally intended to cover. They’re worried about terminological creep, possibly from a prescriptivist point of view, which would be worrisome, but more likely just from a desire for precision — if one wants to have a meaningful technical discussion about music, one must of course have clearly agreed, defined, terms.
I applaud Mr. Simmons’ desire for rigour, and so let us look for a definition of “rock and roll”. The term was, of course, coined by Alan Freed, a disc jockey who wanted to play what was then known as “race music” without arousing the ire of segregationists, though the term had been used in records as far back as “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)” in 1922. But let’s take Mr. Freed as our starting point. The music he promoted and endorsed as “rock and roll” included musicians such as Chuck Berry, the Platters, Bill Haley and the Comets, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
From this list of musicians, and others like them, we can come to a fairly reasonable definition of what rock and roll actually entails:
If a song is fast, it should be a twelve-bar blues. Otherwise it should have a I-vi-ii-V sequence or variant on same.
There should be a prominent bassline, played on a double bass.
There should be either an acoustic guitar or a piano providing chordal support.
There should be a tenor saxophone. If one is not available, an electric guitar can be used, but it must play clean, undistorted, melody lines similar to those played by the saxophone in a jump band.
There should be a great deal of reverb on the lead vocal.
Acceptable topics for lyrics include having fun at the rocking party tonight, foolishly falling in love, being in love with someone who doesn’t love you, rocking all night, how rock and roll is the best kind of music, and going to school but wishing that instead you were with the girl you love and/or at a rocking party having fun.
The rhythm should be either a shuffle, a boogie rhythm, or straight 12/8 triplets.
A drum kit is acceptable, but not mandatory.
Having this list, we can clearly see that rock and roll, as a genre, became largely commercially moribund some time around 1959. Oddly, a number of bands appear to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame despite meeting none of these criteria. Many of them appear instead to be in because they perform in the similarly-named “rock” genre, which is characterised instead by the use of distorted electric guitars, electric bass, full drum kit, and a general lack of either double bass or tenor sax, with its main characteristic being the use of repeated musical figures (“riffs”) played on electric guitar.
I can see how this confusion has arisen — the two genres do, after all, have very similar names, “rock” even being part of the name “rock and roll” — but they are clearly distinct.
I must thank Mr. Simmons for bringing this matter to our attention, and in the interest of strict, and definitely not racist, linguistic accuracy, must hereby start campaigning for the removal of rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Mr. Simmons’ own musical side-project Kiss, from the Hall of Fame. I can only applaud Mr. Simmons’ honesty in bringing this shocking oversight to everyone’s attention, even though it will mean his own removal, only two years after he was inducted.
Still, maybe the Rap Hall of Fame will let him in instead…
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